Have you ever wondered how food banks access local farm fresh produce in King County?
Harvest Against Hunger, formerly Rotary First Harvest, works with farmers, truckers, volunteers and others to bring valuable skills and resources into hunger relief efforts in communities across Washington state and beyond. The Harvest Against Hunger (HAH) Farmer’s Share Program helps increase access to healthy fresh foods in high need populations by developing direct purchasing agreements between farmers and food banks. This new program is funded through the Regional Food System Grant from the King Conservation District.
The Local Food Team spoke with David Bobanick, HAH Executive Director, and Gayle Lautenschlager, HAH Farmer’s Share Americorps VISTA, about the Farmer’s Share program and how they are cultivating relationships with and between farmers and food banks.
Local Food Team (LFT): What are the goals and benefits of the Farmer’s Share program?
Gayle Lautenschlager (GL): The main goal of the King County Farmer’s Share program is to increase access to healthy, fresh produce in food insecure populations.
Not only do we want to help provide fresh produce, but we also aim to provide culturally relevant produce and meals at food banks.
Food banks generally do not have a say in what they receive but people desire fresh fruits and vegetables they are familiar with, and we hope to help them access those foods.
For example, at South Seattle College, the food bank contracted produce their residents were asking for, such as bok choy, which excited customers because those are not foods normally seen in food banks.
Another major goal is to support farmers by providing a consistent outlet for their produce.
We want to provide farmers with a place where they can take food to offload in a hurry that they cannot wholesale to a market. Many markets will not accept imperfect produce or produce that goes bad quickly. If we can accept this produce, then we can support farmers while providing food-insecure residents with more healthy options.
All of the produce that is normally not accepted due to aesthetic appearances turns into food waste. Accepting imperfect and very ripe produce creates a stable market for those kinds of products that otherwise may remain unharvested in the field.
We also have an educational component of this program that supports customers by providing information about the produce coming in through the Farmers Share program. The educational component of our work focuses on explaining what the produce is, the nutritional value of the produce, and how to use and cook with it.
LFT: How do you help farmers and food banks find each other?
David Bobanick (DB): Relationship building is a core component of Farmer’s Share program development.
We build relationships with farmers and food banks in a variety of ways. We reach out to organizations asking where farmers are in the area, foster new relationships with new food banks through relationships with ones we have worked with, and we focus on supporting and growing relationships we already have.
One of my long-term goals is to grow the number of participating farmers so we can support them and hunger-alleviation agencies interested in creating relationships with farmers.
The Farmer’s Share program involves 11 hunger-alleviation agencies, with most of them being food banks.
When we were designing this program, we wanted to go through three primary partner organizations focused on hunger alleviation, but after developing these relationships, we found that one-on-one relationships with the food banks themselves were happening organically.
We continued to develop these one-on-one relationships because our ultimate goal is to create a framework for food banks to buy more easily from local farmers. Most food banks don’t have the resources to find local farmers to buy from and farmers don’t have the capacity to partner with and sell to food banks on their own.
We believe that these personal relationships will help us better understand what food banks need and how best to support them once this project ends.
We are still figuring out how to create a framework like this, but once we do, we hope it will allow agencies and farmers to work together without needing our program or an intermediary.
LFT: What are some of the challenges HAH has faced developing this program?
GL: A major challenge for program development is that this whole process is very new for farmers and food banks. We keep asking ourselves, “how do we do it and do it right?”
We keep reminding ourselves that developing this program involves a lot of learning and running into road blocks we have never encountered. However, we also run into major opportunities and remain open to every possibility that is out there for developing this program and a framework for program participants to use in the long-term.
For example, the Vashon Maury food bank was contacted by one of their contracted farms because the farm had a major surplus of broccoli that was going to spoil. Broccoli is one of the most requested items at food banks, and Vashon Maury was able to obtain broccoli at a very inexpensive price.
These participants were able to work through this learning process quickly to provide their customers with a product in high demand. Being by their side during this learning process was very beneficial for us in developing our framework and having these unexpecting and exciting opportunities helps our program and its members thrive.
LFT: What are some successes and opportunities you have had along the way?
DB: We finally have Gayle, who has been integral in building relationships and our framework.
The connections are what have given us so many opportunities to continue our work.
We recently met with Chef Tom, a chef at Mary’s Place, who is really interested and open to trying new ways of going local but does not know exactly how to get started. Our partnership will help us develop the framework that will help him and help others like him who don’t know where to start in this daunting yet exciting process.
We are also working with Farmstand Local Foods because they are connected with and provide fresh produce for a number of food banks. We connected Chef Tom to Farmstand and a local farmer to get this relationship started.
There is a lot of great “cross-pollination” that is happening – farmers meeting other farmers, food banks connecting with farmers, and more. This program gives us an opportunity to work with Farmstand and other organizations trying to connect farmers with new markets.
We are discovering new things every day as we continue to develop this program. We have found models that have not existed before, and we are trying them out. We are not sure exactly what this framework will look like, but we know that there is virtually unlimited potential
LFT: What is next for the Farmer’s Share program?
GL: We plan to do farmer roundtables, which are informal events where farmers who have participated in the Farmer’s Share program come together and discuss their experiences, successes, challenges, and overall experience with us.
We want farmer input on what they would like to see in the future and how we can grow the number of participating farms, with a focus on even more diversity and relationship-building.
We plan to use their feedback, as well as feedback from participating food banks, to improve the program for next year. We know that farmers will provide a real-world perspective on the program and its impact, which we would not hear if we were just looking at numbers.
Ultimately, we want to support farmers as much as we are supporting food banks. We want to balance that support and make it mutually beneficial.
We are trying to put a long-lasting framework into place. Next year we will know how to make the Farmer’s Share program more sustainable after King Conservation District funding ends. We do not want this program to disappear once there is no more funding. We are creating the Farmer’s Share program in a way that will allow it to continue to strengthen relationships between farmers and food banks in the long-term future.
If you or someone you know is a King County farmer interested in participating in the Farmer’s Share program, please email Gayle at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
All pictures courtesy of Harvest Against Hunger.